In celebrating the return to basketball, we will be previewing potential first-round playoff series between the Los Angeles Lakers and the six teams who could finish as the eighth seed after eight seeding games in Orlando. Today’s team is the San Antonio Spurs.
The last time the Los Angeles Lakers were in the postseason, an injured team crawled to a bludgeoning at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs, ultimately getting swept. In the closing minutes, Dwight Howard stepped off the court, pulled off his Lakers jersey for the last time, and had some choice words for general manager Mitch Kupchak in what amounted to his final action in the purple and gold at the time.
Seven years later, Howard has rejoined the squad and become an integral part of its core off the bench and the Lakers, leaders of the Western Conference, could be seeing a familiar foe in the first round with a look at revenge, even if only one current player from the roster was there for the last go-around.
The Spurs are unlikely to make the postseason, to be sure. At 27-36 and 12th in the conference standings, the Spurs are also without big man LaMarcus Aldridge due to injury. Their talent level is not on the same level as other contenders to take the Grizzlies eighth seed, including the Blazers and Pelicans. Still, with Gregg Popovich at the helm, San Antonio is a threat and few teams will be better prepared to make the most out of the eight-game seeding season in Orlando.
If the Lakers do see San Antonio in the playoffs, they would feel confident about their chances of advancing without much trouble. They won all three of the regular-season matchups this year by seven, 10, and 27 points. The spurs rank 11th offensively but just 24th defensively. They are also poor at rebounding (20th in rebound rate) and are among the lowest volume 3-point shooting teams in the league (28.7 attempts per game, 28th in the league).
Where the Spurs can hurt the Lakers – and have, at times this season – is through their size on the wings. Both DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay can rise up and shoot over the Lakers’ guards or use their strength to clear space against them. DeRozan averaged 22 points on 28-of-55 shooting through three games. Gay struggled, averaging eight points per game on 9-of-23 shooting. The Lakers’ main option to guard DeRozan, the especially dangerous weapon, is Danny Green but the Lakers’ guard can sometimes struggle to stay out of foul trouble with his handsy defense and DeRozan is adept at drawing fouls. Double-teaming him could be dangerous given the former All-Star has had his two best passing seasons since joining the Spurs, averaging 5.6 assists per game this year.
Fortunately, for the Lakers, that can be reciprocated the other way. DeRozan can be an offensive hub especially with his refined passing but going the other way, he is a major liability. The Lakers exploited this several times over the course of their regular-season matchups and you can bet LeBron James, who beat DeRozan in the playoffs multiple times when they were with the Cavs and Raptors, respectively, will seek that matchup every time down the floor by placing him in pick and rolls. What the Lakers’ guards lack in playmaking and penetration, they make up for in their screening ability and that can be a major key in getting those positive James versus DeRozan matchups.
In the interior, the Lakers should not have too much trouble limiting the Spurs’ frontcourt with Aldridge out. The former Blazer’s strength could have been an issue for Anthony Davis and JaVale McGee who can both get pushed off the block by bigger players. But without him, the Lakers’ bigs should be able to roam free and provide help defense at the rim and force the Spurs into midrange jumpers that they are more than happy to take. Ultimately, if they lose a game because of a barrage of DeRozan 17-footers, the Lakers will live with that and play the exact same way in the next game.
The respected Spurs dynasty is effectively over with their 22-year postseason streak on the verge of being broken. But with Popovich, they will always be a threat to anyone on any given day. Regardless, in the unlikely event that these two teams see each other in the postseason for the first time since 2013, the brooms would be out, going the other way.